How to solve the House speaker fight

October 14, 2015
U.S. House Speaker Boehner re-enters after excusing himself from news conference following closed Republican House caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

House Speaker John Boehner re-enters after excusing himself from a news conference following a closed Republican House caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington, September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The most misunderstood number in American politics right now is 218. Pundits and editorial boards from left to right state it takes 218 votes to elect a new speaker of the House of Representatives.

The once-certain next speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), surprisingly quit the race to succeed Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) because he doubted his ability to get these votes from the GOP’s 247 House members. Asking Democrats to vote for him, McCarthy said wisely, isn’t a viable option.

But the premise that it takes 218 votes to win a speakership vote is wrong. There is another way for House members to elect an able Republican successor to Boehner.

Gowdy and Ryan arrive for a Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) (L) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) arrive for a Republican caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington, October 9, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The website for the House Clerk says a winning speaker candidate need only receive “an absolute majority of the votes cast.” Democrats currently intend to vote for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now the Democratic minority leader. This is the right long exercised by the House minority in such a vote.

But why shouldn’t the Democrats instead win points from the American people by refusing to participate in the vote, thereby putting partisanship aside and let only GOP House members pick the next speaker, which will be the inevitable result sooner or later?

It can then be a win-win-win solution: The GOP gets a new speaker elected only by Republican votes; Democrats get credit for putting solving problems above partisan gamesmanship, and Americans get to hope the Congress might actually focus its energies on making policy.

It isn’t necessary to get 218 votes in the 435-member body to win the speakership. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mandate an absolute majority. It only says the House “shall” choose a speaker. The election math is up to the members.

This solution doesn’t require any rule changes, or back-room deals. It is an elegant proposal for today’s gritty political world, allowing the most conservative and liberal legislators to keep their precious ideological purity.

It allows Boehner to look forward to retirement as planned. In addition, Pelosi and the Democrats would surely receive praise for a statesmanlike maneuver.


Nathaniel Banks. Photograph by Mathew Brady. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The longest, most contentious battle over the speakership, according to the House of Representatives website, took roughly two months and 133 ballots. It ended in early 1856, when Representative Nathaniel Banks, Democrat of Massachusetts, beat lawmaker William Aiken of South Carolina 103-100 for the right to lead the 34th Congress. This was no majority, however, because there were 234 House members eligible to vote at the time.

Since the House membership was set at 435, four speakers have been elected with fewer than 218 votes. This includes the highest-profile Republican speaker in the party’s history — the loquacious Newt Gingrich. He won the post in 1994, at the start of the 104th Congress, though a few votes short of an absolute majority.

Congressional Democrats are understandably enjoying the GOP’s conundrum. But the smart politics leading up to the 2016 presidential election is to be the party willing do what’s best for the country. Being seen as trying to benefit from disorder in the House is ultimately not in the Democrats’ self-interest.

Opinion polls indicate Congress is near an all-time low in public approval. The Democrats insist the Republican majority is irresponsible. But voters gave the GOP a majority unequalled since the Great Depression.

Democrats can only gain by getting credit for putting politics aside and helping to solve a problem. It’s small compared to all the others needing attention. But it’s a start.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Holy cow…please tell me this is the same “Democrat” from this “Great Debate”: tent/article/2010/09/16/AR2010091606348. html

Posted by dchappie | Report as abusive

How to solve the House Speaker fight:

Get rid of the GOP and get a REAL political party in there. Cry-baby republicans haven’t gotten anything done for 10 years or more. And probably never will again.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

lol…stand down? Why? This is just exposing the fractures in the Republican party that will come out sooner or later, let them be seen now.

Posted by Dehumanist | Report as abusive

The Democrats won’t stand down. There is too much risk. Among some of these Republican candidates who can’t get enough votes are those who believe a government shudown and/or default would be a good thing.

Posted by PeterJK | Report as abusive

Sure! And if the party dynamics were reversed, the GOP would gladly help the Democrats out of their big mess, for the good of the country. NOT! If they GOP wants the help of Democrats, they are more than welcome to vote for Nancy Pelosi, she’s only 30 votes short of 218.

Posted by Clarknt67 | Report as abusive

GOP drama is half the reason they can’t lead any more. The other half is lack of brains. Donald Trump? Ted Cruz? Sarah Palin? Are you guys kidding with this stuff?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

That GOP majority has been due to recent gerrymandering by the party, this unfair manipulation of the voting districts is shown by the fact that Democrats casted 1.5 million more votes in the 2012 congressional elections yet lost a lot of seats in Congress. Gerrymandering is what has given rise to this new uncompromising extreme right within the GOP as the price the GOP has to now pay for having manipulated the voting system… let the GOP stew in the mess they themselves have created… in their unethical quest to gain such a majority in congress they have unwittingly created two parties within the GOP. The so-called Freedom Caucus cannot lose elections in their rigged districts and therefore will remain uncompromising without costing them their electorate. In creating a false majority on paper the GOP now has no majority on anything… ironic wouldn’t you say.

Posted by monomer | Report as abusive

republicans don’t know how to govern, period. How much more proof of a know nothing, do nothing, right wing mess do voters need before they stop putting republicans in office?

Vote every republican out of every office every chance you get!

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

How to solve the house speaker fight:

Resume abortions in the south. The republicans are still breeding.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive